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DVD Review

Benjamin Britten

The Turn of the Screw
a Chamber Opera in Two Acts

  • Governess: Helen Field
  • Mrs Grose: Menai Davies
  • Quint/Prologue: Richard Greager
  • Miss Jessel: Phyllis Cannan
  • Flora: Machiko Obata
  • Miles: Samuel Linay
Cologne Opera at the Schwetzinger Festspiele 1990
Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart/Steuart Bedford
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper
Based on the novel by Henry James
Stage director: Michael Hampe
Directed for Video and Television by Claus Viller
Arthaus DVD 100198 Full Screen 114 mins
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

This is one of my favourite operas, which I have followed around since its original production, most memorably in two quite different productions by Broomhill Opera. Britten's own historic 1955 recording of The Turn of the Screw is available on Decca CD 425672-2LH2 with Peter Pears & Jennifer Vyvyan, a bench-mark before considering this DVD.

But one cannot feed on memory alone and this is a sound account from 1990 under the secure direction of the most experienced of the composer's collaborators, who became Director of the Aldeburgh Festival. The Variations (interludes between the short scenes) allow us to observe Bedford conducting the small ensemble, which produces a miraculous range of timbres and a dynamic range which leaves no regret that there is no full orchestra, but perhaps they are served better by brief contemplation without visual distraction? The sets are effective; economical and fairly traditional, with drained out colour, predominantly greys and blues.

Helen Field assumed the governess's part without quite 'becoming' her; Menai Davies was too forthright and sings too loud for the home audience. Samuel Linay judges the key role of Miles to perfection and his conflicts become central in this version. I was unable to take the ghosts so seriously as one must. Camera movements are restless, moving in for close-ups to catch every expression, somehow destroying a sense of mystery and foreboding. The mounting tensions in Act Two are however well conveyed and other viewers may become more absorbed and able to identify with the protagonists than I found myself.

Perhaps The Turn of the Screw needs to be seen with the imagination one brings to the theatre or to listening at home. On TV, as filmed at Schwetzinger, it is somehow too literal and the appearances and disappearances of the ghosts are redolent of familiar fade techniques, debased by regular overuse. For those who don't know The Turn of the Screw, this DVD may prove a good first encounter with a key opera of the mid-1900s.

Copyright © 2003, Peter Grahame Woolf